Friday, July 27, 2012

Hard-Boiled Zombies; Mike Carey's Felix Castor series

I have just finished reading the fifth of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels: The Devil You Know (2007), Vicious Circle (2008), Dead Men’s Boots (2009), Thicker than Water (2009), and The Naming of the Beasts (2009). I first encountered Carey’s writing in Lucifer (1999-2006), a spin-off from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.

In the Felix Castor novels, Carey has the freedom of not working within the DC Comics / Vertigo universe, allowing him to create an entirely new world. In this world, the dead are returning, either as ghosts, loup-garou (werewolves), or zombies. In addition to dead humans, demons occasionally appear, too. Carey never explains why these creatures have started to appear, but they are becoming more and more numerous; there is a suggestion that the apocalypse (or something akin to it) is approaching and the world is on the brink of a significant change.

The returning humans are ghosts, in a variety of forms. Incorporeal ghosts are manifestations of strong emotion at the time of death, so they are common in hospitals, accident scenes, and the like. Zombies are ghosts who have re-inhabited their own bodies and re-animated them. They are not the familiar horror-movie zombies; they don’t seek human brains. Carey has thought out the implications of being a zombie more carefully. They are relatively short-lived creatures, since their bodies cannot heal. So they are fragile (a broken bone is forever) and continuously rotting. Smart zombies avoid conflict, sunlight, and warm temperatures; living in a refrigerator retards the putrification process. Loup-garou are ghosts who have possessed the flesh of an animal. These ghosts can take over any animal or, at times, groups of animals; hence, the various were-beasts we encounter in the books. Carey is vague about where ghosts come from; he is similarly vague about their ultimate destination.  If exorcised, do they go to heaven, purgatory, or hell? No one knows.

While the origin and destination of ghosts is unclear, this is not the case for the other major category of supernatural creatures in Carey’s novels. In the first novel, he makes it clear that demons exist. One of them, Asmodeus, possesses the body of Rafi Dikto, a good friend of the books’ hero, Felix Castor. Another is a succubus, who takes the name Juliet. Whatever the type of demon, they are far more powerful than ghosts. Ghosts can’t (usually) possess a human, because the human consciousness is stronger than it; animals are not so fortunate. Demons, however, can overcome a human’s consciousness and possess its body. Other demons, like the succubus, don’t possess humans but manifest themselves in a physical form. They “eat” the emotional energy of humans (lust, fear, etc.). Demons come from Hell, but their origin and lives there are only vaguely described. Carey begins to delve into the origin of the demons in the fourth book -- they are not fallen angels. But we get only glimpses and glimmers, it is never explained fully.

This limited viewpoint comes about because the narrator is the hero of the novels, Felix Castor. Thus, the entire world is mediated to the reader via Felix’s ideas and experience. Felix has experience as an exorcist. He explains that exorcists are naturally sensitive to the spiritual world, although until the ghosts started (re)appearing, this talent went largely unnoticed. But once the dead started walking the earth, being able to sense and, more importantly, dispatch the dead became an important skill. Castor, though, is conflicted about using it, precisely because he isn’t sure what happens to ghosts after he exorcises them. Thus, he generally wants to leave ghosts alone or, if possible, to address whatever emotional trauma at death caused the ghost to form, allowing it to dissipate voluntarily.

Castor’s approach to the undead and demons is not shared by all the citizens of London. Many exorcists dispel ghosts without much concern. So do the Anathemata, a group of militant Catholic exorcists, whose activities have been publicly disavowed by the Vatican, allowing them to engage in activities of which the church might officially disapprove. On the other extreme, an American-led Church of Satan is actively seeking to summon demons. Additionally, there are people advocating to extend human rights to the undead. Castor regards them as over-zealous, akin to extreme animal rights activists. This last group, though, raises very interesting legal questions, which Carey briefly explores: When do heirs get to inherit? If ghosts are people, is it “legal” to exorcise them? These sorts of questions and the attitudes different characters exhibit towards the dead are part of what make these novels so interesting.

Castor himself treads a middle path, changing his shingle from “exorcist” to a “spiritual advisor.” In actual practice, he acts like a private detective. Carey models him, quite overtly, on Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, the hard-boiled detectives created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, respectively. (Some readers might be more familiar with Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir, Private Eye, which is a spoof of this genre.)  He wanders the streets of London, usually at night, seeing the gritty underside of the city. He offers his observations on the world using macho similes appropriate to the hard-boiled genre (“feeling like someone had magically transformed my tongue into a size-10 army boot” or “the cloying atmosphere of the place pressing in on me so that I felt like I was breathing through petrol-soaked rags”). Castor has a quick wit, answering questions with snappy and amusing retorts. He drinks copiously and frequently. His relationship with the police and other authority figures is often tense. And of course, there is the sexy femme-fatale. But Carey’s femme-fatale is, literally, deadly: she is a succubus. Carey’s descriptions of Juliet’s physical charms are lavish, an updated version of those employed by Chandler and Hammett.

Each of the novels follows Castor’s attempt to solve one major mystery. Carey’s experience in the comic book industry is, perhaps, evident in that there are many different plot lines running through the books, such as Dikto’s possession by Asmodeus, issues surrounding Juliet, questions about the ethics of doing research on the undead, and, of course, most importantly: why are the dead returning? The end of the fifth book brings a major plot line to a resolution. Perhaps because of this Carey has not published additional books in this series. According to the Wikipedia article on Mike Carey, another novel should appear next year. Unfortunately, the citation for this hopeful note points to a forum on Carey’s website that is no longer active. For fans of his well-written and thought provoking novels, the Wikipedia citation offers a glimmer of hope that we might see a sixth Felix Castor novel.

Until then, I hope more readers will discover the universe Carey creates in these books, with its interesting mix of the mundane and the supernatural. These books offer a more thoughtful examination of zombies and ghosts than much popular literature. It’s also fun to see the hard-boiled detective genre come back to life, especially when handled by a writer as skillful as Mike Carey.

By Adam Porter